Pliny the Elder

Pliny, the author of the "Natural History", is called "the Elder" in order to distinguish him from his nephew who was also a noted author in his own right. His Roman name was Gaius Plinius Secundus. Though he wrote many books on history and biography, the elder Pliny is most noted for his work "Natural History" which is an encyclopedic compendium of the knowledge of his day. An interesting innovation was his listing of the sources of his information.1 When much of the Greek writing was lost in the dark ages, Pliny's book was used as a textbook for scientific education.

Famous quotes by Pliny the Elder:

"The only certainty is that nothing is certain."

"True glory lies in doing what deserves to be written and writing what deserves to be read."

"How many things have appeared to be impossible until they have actually been done?"

Born in 23 or 24 A.D. (C.E.), Pliny the elder was the son of a Roman from the knightly equestrian class in Novum Comum (modern day Como, Italy). It was a small city in Gallia Transpadana. He spent much of his boyhood and teen years going to school in Rome. He studied rhetoric under Publius Pomponius Secundus, a noted poet and general of the time who had connections with the imperial court.2

When he reached 21 Pliny decided to serve in the military. He was stationed in Gallia Belgica (Belgium) as a military tribune. He took a liking to the military and soon got promoted to prefect of a cavalry unit. He was transferred to the frontier with Germania. In 47 A.D. he took part in a campaign under Carbulo against the Frisians and Chauci. After a victory, the army was recalled by Claudius, who felt his military resources were getting spread too thin.

But another campaign was soon conducted, now under Pliny's old teacher, Publius Pomponius Secundus. It was a war against the Chatti, a Germanic tribe that had settlements near Mainz. During this time, Pliny the Elder saw some remarkable sights, including the thermal spas at Weisbaden. He also wrote his first book which was a kind of military manual on horse-riding and spear-throwing. (It is no longer extant.)

After this war, Pliny returned to Rome, probably with Publius Pomponius Secundus. Having direct access with this great man, Pliny wrote his biography. After the death of the poet/general, Pliny returned to the army on the Rhine. While there, he wrote his "History of the Germanic Wars". This was a monumental work in 20 volumes. His nephew, Pliny the Younger, said he wrote this in response to a dream. However, others think it was partially a piece meant to persuade the emperor to continue the conquest of Germania.

In the year 59, Pliny returned to Rome. He may have been seeking office. However, Nero had become emperor. The man was dissolute and not inclined toward serious minded Romans such as Pliny. Now 36 years old, Pliny the Elder retired from public life. Staying out of the way of the capricious Nero. During this period of retirement, he wrote three more books. "The Scholar" was a training manual for those aspiring to excel in rhetoric. Problems in Grammar dealt with regularizing language. And "A History of Aufidius Bassus" in thirty-one volumes was a current history. None of these works survived the Dark Ages.

Around the year 62, Pliny's sister had a son. When the father died Pliny adopted him, and the boy took on his step-father's name and to history would become known as Pliny the Younger. In 68 the political situation in Rome went from bad to worse when Nero was forced to commit suicide and civil war broke out among the Roman generals to see who would become the next emperor. Pliny seems to have sided with a friend from his days in the Army of the Rhine, Vespasian. He chose correctly, as Vespasian emerged victorious.

His connections with the new emperor brought him a procuratorship in the western part of the empire where he had much responsibility as both a judge and as a tax collector. In 70 he returned to Rome where he became an advisor to the Emperor. He was a furious worker, often getting up in the middle of the night to write. He even made use of mealtimes, having someone read to him as he ate and took notes.

Pliny the Elder was made admiral of the western Roman navy. While serving in this position he also found time to write his famous "Natural History" which was published in 77. In the year 79, still admiral of the western fleet, Pliny noticed a cloud over the city of Pompeii. He led a flotilla to rescue the people who were blasted by the eruption of Vesuvius. He died attempting to evacuate the people of the city.

Pliny, because he was the first to come up with a name for hops (used in beer brewing), has actually had a beer, made by the Russian River Brewing Company, named after him3.

  1. Wolfram on Pliny the Elder
  3. Ref to:


The Roman Poet Catullus
Pliny on Crystals
Natural Sources of Omega-3

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